He touched the hem of F1 but Rick Mears preferred to stay at home. He won at Indy four times but Le Mans was never on the agenda, and he reckons Stock Cars are like boats…
Of your four Indy 500 wins, which do you treasure the most, and why? — Michael Cox, Pershore
The fourth one. The first one will always have its place, simply because it’s the first. But for me, the first one came at only my second attempt and my feeling on it was, ‘All right, we won another race…’ At the time I didn’t really realise what it took to win the 500 and how much it meant. But then I won the fourth one. OK, the simple fact I’d done it was part of what made it special, but a big part of what made it my stand-out Indy win was the way we won it; the head-to-head battle with Michael Andretti. It made that a special win.
So what are the odds of winning the 500 four times? — George Winkley, Burnley, Lancashire
When you start thinking how there’s only been two guys who’ve won it four times, those odds are getting even greater.
Why didn’t you push a little harder to put a Daytona 24 Hours or, say, a Le Mans win under your belt? — Lloyd Barrett, Irthlingborough
I think it pretty much seemed like there were always conflicts with scheduling of races and tests, and it never seemed to fall right. I looked at Le Mans a couple of times and it seemed we always had something going on at the same time.
Any desire to try NASCAR? — Bob Hui, Portland, Oregon
No, not really. I had opportunities too, but by the time I was doing Indycars the switching back and forth between codes, as AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti had done in previous years, was kinda going away. Everything was becoming much more specialised and I’d been around long enough to know that you don’t just jump into somebody else’s backyard. In the early 1980s, when USAC had a stock car programme, I ran Michigan and Milwaukee. I ran several years in the IROC series too. I enjoyed stock cars, but I liked open-wheels far better. Stock cars are great, and I’m not taking anything away from them, but you get out of an Indycar and into a stock car and you feel like you’re getting into a boat. Everything happens much, much slower. But to run hard, at the limit, and up front with those guys, it’s as hard as anything else.
After your crash at Sanair in ’84, how close did you come to quitting? — Rodney Lee, Coos Bay, Oregon
I didn’t even think about quitting. Soon as I saw both feet were there, I knew I’d be back in the car. The perception was that it had changed me, but it was all from people who didn’t really look at the whole picture. I was winning on road races before the crash, but I wasn’t when I came back, and yet I was still winning on ovals, so they said, “It’s messed up his feet, he can’t do road courses.” But the crash didn’t really change anything, I don’t feel.
The only thing is, back then we had a lot of throttle lag with the turbos. I realised that I also had throttle lag in my right foot because of nerve damage. I only realised when I was sitting in a jacuzzi one night and I went to splash water at my wife with my foot and all I could do was cause a little ripple… With the nerve damage, the response in my foot was now a little slow, so I started treating it like turbo lag, coming in a little earlier.
Did you have any pre-race rituals at Indy? Are you superstitious? — Nate Smith, Crawley, Sussex
No and no. My thing was just to try and stay calm and relaxed as much as possible before the race. I wasn’t into psyching myself up — I’ve got 500 miles to get excited. And that’s when I want to get excited — when I need to, not when I don’t. The first five laps are the most dangerous and unpredictable, so why go into them overexcited?
Tell me one thing about Roger Penske that I don’t know. — John Long, Sidcup
Hmm, guess I don’t know either… Have to pass on that one.
What’s the best car you ever raced, and the worst? — Elsa Ford, Seattle
Oh man, the best is always whichever’s the last you won with. I don’t know, because we had a lot of good cars over the years and it’s almost like trying to compare drivers from the ’60s with drivers from the ’80s or ’90s. What’s excellent when it’s new will probably scare you to death five years later.
The PC6, the last flat-bottomed car, was very good. The PC10 was very good because it was our first big gain in ground effects. As time went on, the PC17 and PC18 of the late ’80s-early ’90s were probably the best cars that I drove — put one of those right in there. We had a pretty good leg-up.
The worst was probably the PC15 (from 1986). It was good at one race — at Sanair, where we sat on the pole, but to this day we don’t know why. It never repeated it again. I’ve always been a feel driver, not a reflex driver, and that car was absolutely numb. A beautiful car, meticulous design work and fit and finish, but it was just numb.
Who’s the best driver you ever raced against? — Amy Davies, Horley, Surrey
That’s tough. I always looked at the long haul. That’s the way I always rated a driver — the guy who could be there day in, day out, knocking on the door, and I’d have to say that over the long haul it was Mario. He was running when I got there and running when I left, and you could never count him out. He kept the fire lit for a longtime, which always amazed me. It was great, the way he kept the desire.
How good was your brother Roger and, with the right breaks, could he have achieved anywhere near what you did in motorsport? — Stuart Lacey, San Francisco
Without a doubt. He was very talented; there’s not too many people who could stand on the gas as hard as he could, and that was tough, because he knew it and I knew it. If he’d just got in the right car at the right time and the right place, he’d have done very well.
From any era, who is your racing hero or role model? — John Springate, Kew
Probably Parnelli Jones. I drove for him a couple of times on the Baja 1000 when he was running Chevy trucks. That guy could run as hard as anybody. He could do things in a car that were just unbelievable. He just had it. I raced against him in a couple of Toyota celebrity races and we didn’t have a straight fender between us at the end.
You tested for Brabham at Riverside but why didn’t you opt for F1? — John Newens, Hampton Court
I got to satisfy my curiosity. I got as far as sorting out terms with Bernie (Ecclestone) for ’81. The money was good and Roger Penske was happy. I know what Nelson Piquet achieved in ’81, but I enjoyed the variety of challenges that CART presented — the ovals, the permanent courses, the street tracks.
If I hadn’t tested the car, maybe there’d be a bunch of ‘what ifs’ but I knew it wasn’t beyond me, and because I knew the drivers in F1 weren’t unreachable I was satisfied and comfortable with my decision.
Is it true that your middle name is Raven? If so, that’s cool! — David Kettle, Bracknell
It’s Ravon. Emphasis on the ‘on’. It’s my dad’s middle name too.